Charles Forte was born in Monforte in Italy in 1908.
At the age of five he came to Scotland with his parents and he was educated in Alloa and Dumfries before attending Mamiani College in Rome.
He opened his first milk bar in London in 1935. Within twenty-five years he had acquired the Criterion Restaurant, the Monico, the Café Royale, the Waldorf Hotel and Fuller’s Ltd. In 1970 the Trust House Forte Group was formed and his empire expanded to include over 800 hotels and several hundred restaurants.
He was created a life peer in 1982 when his son Sir Rocco Forte took over as CEO of the Forte Group. He died on 28th February 2007 aged ninety-eight. I interviewed him in late 1992.
You didn’t have an entirely settled upbringing in the sense that it was divided between Scotland and Italy, and you were often separated from your parents and siblings. Do you think this worked to your advantage in the end?
It’s a question I can’t really answer except to say that I never felt uprooted. I spent a lot of time with my family and I was always very close to my parents. I still own my childhood home in Monforte, and I go back there regularly. I’ve never lost my feeling for Italy and whenever I go back to the tiny little village up in the hills, I get the prickly feeling knowing I am back where my ancestors came from. I have a similar feeling of excitement if I go to Alloa in Scotland. The strange thing is, although I have been all over the world, and I suppose at my age I could live anywhere, I do regard Britain as home. Whenever my wife and I fly into Heathrow, even though it’s raining and cold and miserable, we always look at each other and say, ‘Ah, thank God, we’re back, back home.’
Your childhood seems to have been a mixture of over-protectiveness from your parents and a large degree of independence. Was this an ideal combination, would you say?
I don’t think my parents ever gave me the freedom I needed, but they were lovely people, God bless them, and I hope there’s another world so that I may see them again. Although they didn’t encourage independence, I took it anyway, and managed to remain close to them. They needed my affection because they were away from home, my father spoke English very badly, and they had no friends beyond their family. They never really assimilated.
You did not take to boarding school in Scotland and persuaded your parents to take you away, and yet the alternative was boarding school in Italy. Why was one unacceptable and the other not?
They were both unacceptable. The difference was that one was nearer home and I was able to escape from it, and the other was in Rome and since I was isolated I had to stay. My father was determined I should have some discipline so he consulted a relative who was a monk at the Mamiani College in Rome, took me there and told me to stay.
You decided at a very young age that you were going to be the most successful member of your family…where did this driving ambition come from?
The Fortes have always been very competitive. They’ve been in the village of Monforte for generations, and they’ve always been keen to try and do better than one another. I just knew I was going to be successful. I had it in my bones. I was cut out for the job and I always had the idea that the more persistent I was, the more successful I would be. I always remember Gary Player, the great golfer, playing a shot out of the bunker, and it dropped two inches from the hole, and a lady from the crowd said, ‘Oh Mr Player, how lucky!’ and he looked up and said, ‘Madam, the more I practise the luckier I get.’
When the war broke out, did you have any sense of divided loyalties? I know you wanted the Allies to win but you must have feared for your family and friends back in Italy…
When war broke out I went to the Home Office and volunteered for the Air Force. I didn’t want to fight against people who were my own countrymen, so I asked to serve in the catering corps. A few days later I was interned – maybe because I had made myself too prominent, I don’t know. It was one of the big disappointments of my life because I was waiting for my naturalization to come through. And this was my country, this has always been my country.
What were your feelings when you were interned?
For the first three or four days I really couldn’t get used to it. I was angry at the treatment, the idea of being thrown behind barbed wire. Within a few days I was offered a job by Captain Myers who was head of the camp. Since I spoke English, he wanted me to be a kind of liaison officer. He explained that some people needed help with applications and so on. After I had agreed, he then asked me – in his very nice manner – to identify any fascists in the camp. I said to him, ‘Captain Myers, I am only too pleased to be your personal assistant, but if you want me to be a spy, you must get somebody else for the job. I won’t do it.’
Did your internment affect your attitude towards life, did it change you?
No, I wasn’t there long enough. After two and a half months I was released. At the tribunal I was asked all kinds of questions: who did I want to win the war, did I have a cousin in the Italian Air Force, and so on, until I stood up and told them I had had enough and was not prepared to answer any more questions. I turned around and walked to the door where there was a Scots soldier barring my way with a rifle. I shouted at him: ‘What’s the matter with you? Get out of the bloody way! I’m one of you for God’s sake!’ The chairman of the tribunal told him to let me through. I thought I had really blown it, but two days later Captain Myers called me to his office and I was released.
Did you feel any bitterness or anger towards the British government for giving the order to intern?
No, I knew there was a war on, I knew that London was being bombed. I have never felt any bitterness whatsoever. I just thought what a lucky fellow I was compared to all those poor buggers in the army being shot at in the desert. I’m not given to bitterness, and I loved this country, then as now.
Your father seems to have been a model of propriety and in his personal life, and you appear to have adopted his values wholesale. Did you never feel the need for rebellion at any point?
We had several ups and downs, and even when I left Brighton to come to London we had a row. He told me I was mad and that I should stay and work with him. But when he saw I had made up my mind he took £500 in cash out of the drawer and gave it to me.
Your son Rocco has carried on the business. Isn’t a working relationship within the family a very delicate thing?
Yes, it’s probably more difficult, and I’m sure Rocco would say the same, but if you observe certain principles, it can be done. He’s been working with me for twenty-nine years, and for twenty of those years he had to do what I told him. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible.
Your meeting with Irene seems to have been love at first sight. Was she the first woman you really loved?
There was another woman I was to marry when I was about twenty, a distant relative, a third or fourth cousin. We fell in love, but her parents, who considered themselves to be superior in all ways, strongly objected to the marriage. Eventually she went to America where she became ill and died.
Tell me about your first meeting with Irene.
I first saw her in her mother’s charcuterie in Old Compton Street where she was being very patient with an elderly Italian man, translating a letter for him from English to Italian. I immediately thought, what a nice girl. I asked her for dinner the following evening but she said she already had an engagement. ‘Well, put it off,’ I said. And she did. That’s how it all started. I proposed to her after only one week, and we were engaged to be married after two or three weeks.
That was surely a departure from the normal caution you exercised in business deals…were you conscious of any element of risk?
I had no hesitation. She was British Italian and I knew she was the woman for me. I was absolutely certain of what I was doing, because at thirty-four years old, I had met many girls. Irene was exactly right, and by God it’s the best deal I’ve ever done.
You describe your marriage as the happiest and most fortunate thing that has ever happened to you. Do you regard a successful marriage mainly as a result of good fortune, a matter of luck?
Yes, in the sense that I might not have met her – there are millions of people in London after all. But it also involved good judgement. I knew I could make her a damned good husband – I’d had a few girls, I wasn’t too bad looking, I had a bit of money and I used to dress nicely. I wasn’t short of girlfriends, but I knew this was the woman I wanted to marry. It wasn’t entirely straightforward because once again the parents objected. Her mother didn’t want her to marry me because she thought I was a womanizer.
And were you?
Not really. Of course I went out with girls, and certainly I slept with them, but they had to be certain types and of a certain quality. I never yet paid a woman to go to bed with her. In any case the importance of sex is often exaggerated – I could certainly be without a woman for a year or so.
After the war you gradually built up your business until 1954 you bought the Café Royale which you say gave you more pleasure than almost anything else you have ever done. Did the purchase have perhaps as much symbolic significance as actual, that is to say you were buying something which symbolized grandeur and style, and that was the start of the golden road?
Yes, it was. The Café Royale was a very big move upwards. I used to go there and look at the wonderful grill room and see all the famous people, and I’d think, by golly, what a place this is. I’d always wanted to improve my social station – I had been a young tally wally in Scotland and had had to use my fists quite a lot – and it was in my make-up to want to improve, to be part of the Establishment in this country. I think I’ve succeeded. The Café Royale was a first step; my first hotel, the Waldorf, was another.
At the end of the fifties you were offered a peerage by Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the opposition, but despite wanting to be established and honoured, you turned it down because of your rejection of Socialism. Did you ever have moments when you regretted that decision?
Never. Hugh Gaitskell was a great friend of mine and one of the nicest and most honest men I have known. But I believe you have to have certain ideals. It’s not that I’m anti-Labour; we are a democracy and the Labour Party has a right to exist, but I’m not a Labour man. I believe that free enterprise is good for the country, and that everyone is better off under the Conservatives. Years later I accepted the knighthood from Harold Wilson because it came as a result of financial help I had given to Oxford University to build a gallery. A peerage would have meant that I couldn’t go and vote Conservative, but a knighthood was fine.
You had to wait until 1981 to be made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher. What were your feelings then?
Well, it was the Conservative Party, who asked me, but I’m fairly sure it was Margaret who recommended me. I accepted immediately. It meant a great deal to me. I’m the only person of Italian origin who has ever received a peerage in the history of this country.
In 1986 you wrote that you had a special liking for Margaret Thatcher and felt she was leading the country back to greatness. Do you think her Party made a mistake in getting rid of her?
Yes. And the way they did it was so nasty…but then we Conservatives are always good at stabbing our leaders in the back. We’re doing it now with John Major. A country needs strong leadership. If Margaret came back we’d see the difference immediately. I admit that she is a friend of mine, but she is an outstanding person, and the admiration I have for her is unbounded. She ran the country like a small grocer’s shop in the high street, and she ran it damned well. When she was here we were all doing all right, and she would do all right again. I’m not a great feminist, far from it, but by God Margaret Thatcher has what it takes.
The merger between Forte and Trust Houses, although it looked very attractive initially, was beset with difficulties and friction. It involved you in a prolonged boardroom battle which you admit drained you of energy and money in defence of your position and that of the shareholders. Looking back, was it all worth it?
It was a very difficult time, largely because people didn’t keep their word. When we amalgamated, I was supposed to be chairman, but in the event Lord Crowther refused to resign. We had a terrible row during which I said, ‘I’ll bang your head in a minute!’ That’s the state I’d got to, and by God I would have done it if I hadn’t walked out of the room to calm down. I slammed the door so hard that the handle came away in my hand. Lord Crowther’s secretary was sitting outside and she wore an expression of terror as if this mad Italian were going to bludgeon her. I said to her, ‘I’m very sorry, my dear, for making all that noise. Please give this to your boss with my compliments.’ I laid the handle on her desk and the following day I sent her a nice big box of chocolates.
But was it worth the struggle?
Yes, because it was a matter of principle, and it was also essential for the amalgamation of these two companies. I’d put my hotels and restaurants in the hands of these people, and I knew they were inefficient; they simply did not know what they were doing. The Grosvenor House Hotel, that wonderful place, now making millions, was making nothing at all. The wages were about 40 per cent of the turnover instead of 23 per cent maximum. Even now, with all our turnover, our marginal profit is only 8 per cent. It is not an easy business to run. You have to be dropped on your head as a child to go into the hotel business, and that was something these people did not understand.
Your struggle for control of the Savoy has been your bitterest battle, and it still seems to be going on, although a five-year truce has been declared. Did it develop more into a personal war than a business battle?
Yes, in a way, but it’s not been my bitterest battle. The Savoy is by far the best deal I’ve ever done, and I haven’t had one sleepless night over it.
But the voting is not with you…
It will come. They always say I have only 42 per cent of the votes, but I paid 36 million for 70 percent of the Savoy equity, and that’s the part that matters. The Savoy is now valued at 260 million, and we bought 70 per cent for 36 million. People call it a bad deal; I wish I could do a deal like that every day.
You always dreamed of owning the Savoy which has a special significance for you – your father’s first café in Scotland was named the Savoy and you proposed to your wife at the Savoy. Do you think this significance on a personal level cloud your commercial judgement at any stage?
There is an element of sentiment, but anything I do in business has to make a profit. My function is not just to give people comfortable beds and good service and beautiful views; my job is to run a business profitably, and if I don’t do that then I am no longer worthy of being chairman, or president, or anything else. My responsibility is to my shareholders, and the day I don’t give a good dividend, I let my shareholders down.
The row between you and Sir Hugh Wontner seems to have its basis in old-fashioned English snobbery, the idea that a grand old institution like the Savoy would be ruined by a reduction in standards. Did this aspect of things make you all the more outraged and determined to succeed?
I would have been determined anyway, but that aspect probably inspired me more. What he said about lowering standards was nonsense. Did he ever visit our hotels? Unlike his, they were always full because people liked the food, the accommodation, the décor and everything else. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with the Hyde Park Hotel, Grosvenor House, the Westbury in New York? What’s wrong with having your hotels full? What’s the fun in having hotels that lose money? Hugh Wontner used Claridges as his private house; he had a flat on the top and a custom-built lift direct from the kitchen to his flat so that he could have his coffee sent up quickly in the morning, and he didn’t even hold a bloody share…well, he had some shares eventually, but they were more or less taken and given. He also had a string of call girls – that’s how he ran the great Savoy, and yet he looked down on me because we had Little Chefs on the motorways.
You believed that you could double the profits at the Savoy, but manager Peter Crone said that you would do this by using half the cream and half the wine. Did you resent that remark?
Peter Crone doesn’t know what he’s talking about. They call themselves hoteliers, but none of these people knows the first thing.
You say in your book that Hugh Wontner has a great gift for supercilious indifference, and that this attitude might have been excusable but for the dismal profit record. Was this the main reason for your aggressive bid in 1981?
Yes. If they had been profitable I wouldn’t have bothered. I couldn’t bear to see these lovely hotels losing money.
In 1988 you launched a virulent attack on Hugh Wontner claiming ‘a breach of duty’ in an allotment of high voting shares, and you also made other serious allegations. Did you ever consider taking legal steps to establish this in court?
There was no use in trying because he had the thing in his hands, and he had the votes. We approached the tax commissioners, but I felt they were biased in his favour.
But wasn’t Wontner simply using every legitimate means available to preserve the independence of a public company, something you yourself might have done in similar circumstances?
I wouldn’t have run a company like that. He went for years and years without making a profit, never paying a dividend, while he himself lived like the lord of the manor. The man was dishonest. I’m not the sort of person who has evil intentions towards people, and I’m sorry that he’s dead, but the man was a humbug, no doubt about that.
An article in the Sunday Times in 1992 stated: ‘In the ten years since he became chief executive, Rocco has failed to live up to the legend of his father.’ Do you think perhaps yours was an impossible act to follow?
It’s so unfair to write that when the father has had sixty years to make a reputation. My son is doing a bloody good job. I’m delighted that he’s there, and I do everything possible to keep him there. I wish I’d known what he knows at his age.
But if he hadn’t been your son would you have chosen him as chief executive, do you think?
Yes. There’s nobody better I could choose.
Family solidarity has been the constant theme of the Forte story. Would you say that sometimes that has been as much of a weakness as a strength?
It’s always been a great strength and it still is.
You say that nowadays your son, and not you, is accountable to the shareholders, but there is a widespread perception that he is still accountable to you. Is that true?
It’s not true. Of course I am still here and occasionally he asks my advice, but he makes his own decisions. He is the chairman and chief executive, and I made him so. If I hadn’t trusted him, I never would have put him there; there’s too much at stake.
Do you expect the same loyalty from your own children as you extended to your parents?
Absolutely. And so far I have it.
It is said that you kept a very tight rein on your daughters, and that you were a very strict father. Is that true?
Yes. I have given my daughters everything but I have also been very strict with them as regards morals. Rocco did what he liked, and I couldn’t have cared less, as long as he looked after his health. With my daughters it was different. But they love me, all of them.
You went to Roman Catholic schools, as did your children. Is Catholicism something you have always accepted without question – I have the impression that you have never really had to wrestle with your faith.
I have no doubts. I am a Roman Catholic and that’s that. I don’t want to be anything else, I don’t aspire to be anything else. I go to church every Sunday, and I’m enthralled by it.
Do you have the feeling that you are being guided by God in your life?
I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said yes. But I always think there’s a protecting angel somewhere.
Some years ago you met Pope John Paul II who is seen by many Catholics and non-Catholics as being one of the most reactionary popes this century. What is your view?
Things that have worked for centuries and centuries should not just be overturned by one man. I think one must go quietly about it. Catholicism has been a good religion and the papacy has acted properly over two thousand years – why change everything now?
Yours is not exactly a rags-to-riches story in the sense that your own background was not impoverished. Nevertheless, you have risen far above the way of life you were born to…have you ever wished that you could return to the simpler way of life?
No. I haven’t noticed much difference in the way I live. I’ve always been properly dressed, I’ve always been clean, I’ve always had enough to eat. Of course I have a different social level, but it’s not as if I suffered before.
You have said that self-doubt is every man’s worst enemy. You seem to have succeeded in keeping that particular fiend at bay…
Yes. I don’t try and do the impossible, but I never have doubt in myself. I know I’m an honest man, and that is a very good sleeping pill. If I ever think I have done something wrong I apologize immediately, as soon as I have the opportunity. Some time ago, for example, I was very rude to one of my co-directors, a man who has been with me a long time. He criticized me about something and I took objection and called him fat and lazy. He looked at me and then he got up and walked out. That night I couldn’t sleep. The next day I asked to see him. He thought I was going to repeat my insults but instead I made amends and told him how much I admired him. If I am in the wrong I do not hesitate to apologize.
You have lived by old-fashioned values which you have taught to your children and grandchildren. Have they taught you anything in return?
They have taught me patience at times. They have also put me in touch with the modern generation, which I sometimes find difficult to understand. It’s a very valuable contribution.
You have been married to Irene for fifty years. To what do you attribute the success of your long and happy marriage?
We have a deep mutual respect for one another. Irene is a wonderful woman, a marvellous wife, a good mother, I think of her in everything I do.
My wife always says there isn’t a rich man who is unattractive to women…in other words when we become successful and have power and influence and money, we can easily be flattered by the attention women pay us. Were you ever tempted…?
Well, yes, but I’m not going to tell you any details…
No, of course not, I didn’t expect you to…you have become a legend in your own lifetime. How would you like to be remembered?
If they write on my tombstone in fifty years’ time: ‘This was an honest man. He lived an honest life’, I should be happy.